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one of many border photos
Warning: it's about to get sentimental and reflecty...
I'm facing south, watching the surprisingly wide Mississippi River glide past as my train moves closer and closer to home. The quiet hum of the train is lulling, provoking me to short fits of deep, cramped sleep, and each time I wake and see the countryside pass by, I remember that I am no longer walking it. I only boarded the train yesterday at 10 am and already have come 1100 miles, so far in so short a time. But it's an appropriate way to end my trip - train travel, much like walking, is geographically subtle. You see the small changes outside, as the mountains turn to plains turn to cities and rivers and roads. Requiring very little attention or thought, I slowly move towards my destination, happy and relaxed.
And it was only 48 hours ago I was 4 miles from a different destination, the Canadian border and the official northern terminus of the CDT. The last four miles of trail follows the west side of Waterton Lake, and ends at a small clearing on the lakeside with two border monuments, one for the Treaty of 1925 and the other for the Treaty of 1908. And like the PCT's northern terminus, there is a six meter wide swath free of trees and vegetation cut in the forest, three meters on each side of the boundary, stretching out of sight in both directions roughly along the 49th parallel. I arrived with my four companions, Sanjay, Israeli Tom, Rafiki, and Banjo. When I envisioned the end of my hike, I always envisioned finishing alone, I think because I thought it would feel more meaningful. I started alone and it would only make sense to finish the same way - and after all, aren't we all alone, tiny solitary specks in the big scary universe? Right? Right. No, it was wonderful to share the moment with the same folks I had shared 50 miles of smoke, 150 of pavement, 50 of cold rain, and 50 of snow. Joy, after all, is best shared with others blah blah blah. We spent over an hour at the border, celebrating, taking obligatory border photos. Some had packed out celebratory beers, Tom (not being a drinker) had celebratory coffee, and I had a celebratory airplane bottle of Evan Williams, courtesy of Isabel's final care package.
From the border it was only three miles to the small Canadian town of Waterton. Unfortunately, it was mostly up, about 1000 feet (or, now that I was in Canada, 305 meters). While it was winter at higher elevations, it felt like fall in Waterton, cool and crisp and windy, and it excited me for east coast fall. Deer were everywhere, grazing in yards, oblivious to human presence. After grabbing poutine (we had to right?) at a small restaurant, we made our way up towards the edge of town where we would try to hitch to the manned U.S. border crossing at Chief Mountain. As we were hitching, we noticed a traffic jam below the crest of a hill. And as the cars made their way towards us, we realized the reason behind their slow progress: a herd of bighorn sheep were slowly ambling up the road, not a care in the world. I had been wanting to see bighorn sheep in Glacier (I did get to see a mountain goat), and here on my way out, my wish was granted. What IS this magical place?
I've never walked though a manned border crossing before, but at this particular one it is normal, due to all the backpackers on both sides. There are shuttles on each side, picking up and dropping off folks at the border to continue their journey. But the shuttles were expensive, and I wanted one final hitch. It ended up being three hitches, but I made it back to East Glacier with Banjo around 6 pm. The other three stopped in Saint Mary's for the night, a little disappointing because I was hoping to celebrate with them as well. But Banjo and I made a go of it, with beer and Mexican food, before I passed out in the hostel. The next morning after a quick breakfast of way too many baked goods, I boarded the train, where I am now....on my way home.
I find it difficult to sum up this trip in any neat tidy package. I can't say with certainty that I figured anything out, or even learned anything new. I can say I was intimately reacquainted with the natural world though. It's easy for me to take for granted the world which I mostly experience - it was made for me after all. Streets are for me, food is for me, buildings and air conditioning and heat is for me. My bathroom is for me. Game of Thrones and Trader Joe's is for me. Almost everything every day was made for me. So, it is a unique and humbling experience to spend so much time in a place not made for me, and in fact quite indifferent to my existence! It provokes a different relationship with the natural world - a more intimate one, one in which I am not the center but a small participant, and in my opinion a relationship that might inspire better care. Sitting here on the train, I'm watching a lot of countryside pass by, grasslands, rivers, mountains, and I can happily observe it behind a glass window. This country is big and beautiful and grand, fragile and powerful at the same time. But it feels different behind this window...obviously. I know the sounds of wind snaking through the grass, now silenced by quiet conversation and the train's timbre. How that granite boulder felt underfoot, and as it tore skin when I tripped. How cold the rivers, how tasty the springs, how quiet it can be nestled in a mountain fold and how loud it can be on top in a storm. Face to face to wildlife, both parties surprised and curious at the others proximity. Feet away from lightening, milliseconds from thunder. To know the world like that, to experience it with all my senses every day for almost five months is not only an exercise in humility, but also one that brings me in touch with my own mortality. The world does what it does whether I'm there or not, it marches on, not for me, but for itself. And I love experiencing that so vividly.
Still, I'm excited to get back to the world made for me. I'm tired of being scared of lightening, hypothermia, bears, ghirardia, worried about water sources or if I have enough food. I'm ready to return to fretting about eating right, terminal diseases, getting older, if I'm watching too much television, performing well at work, and making intelligent observations. This trip always was for me an immersive vacation, not a permanent lifestyle. But one for which I am spiritually grateful. Coming back to DC relaxed and rejuvenated, I'm happy to return to my creature comforts, the safety of a desk sheltered from the elements, the warm eyes of my loved ones.